How to develop conversation and pragmatic skills in autistic children – a personal view.
Like many people on the autistic spectrum my son has difficulties with conversation and pragmatic skills (the social use of language). For example, if we have visitors over it’s embarrassing when, after an hour or so, he will say to them “Are you going now?”. It’s not that he’s being rude, it’s just that he’s still learning how to use language appropriately in social situations.
Now that he’s a teenager, keeping up with adolescent conversations is a real struggle as they tend to be fast paced, flitting in and out of topics and replete with metaphor, innuendo and sarcasm.
Pragmatics involves three major communication skills that most of us take for granted:-
- Using language for different purposes
e.g. greetings, requesting
- Changing language according to the needs of a listener or situation
e.g. talking differently to a baby than to an adult, speaking differently in a classroom than in a playground
- Following rules for conversation
e.g. reciprocal conversation, introducing topics of conversation, how to use facial expressions and eye contact
We have been fortunate enough to work with a very skilled speech and language therapist who has introduced the concept of conversation as two-way traffic and has been working with him using a highly individualised intervention programme. Over the last 4 years my son has been taught the anatomy of a conversation – he’s learnt about greetings and conversational openings, how topics develop and how they’re used to keep the conversation going.
He still needs help in initiating conversation topics so we use a Conversation Topics book where he lists what he knows about an individual – things like their job, hobbies and interests and also what they talked about last time. The aim is to use this visual resource to assist him in generating a topic and enable him to use specific questions to follow up on something previously discussed.
It’s a time-consuming process and will require lots of practice. He will need continued support and opportunities to develop his conversational skills but I believe it will be time well invested. Like every parent, I want my child to enjoy the experience of having friends and close relationships.
The reality is – if you can have a conversation, you can have a relationship.